Everyone will have their story to tell about 2020.
For Stephanie Smirnov, the new chief engagement officer at Lippe Taylor, 2020 will always be the year of adapting and adjusting. In her previous role as executive vice president of communications for Scholastic, she was brought in to run a centennial celebration to mark the company’s founding.
Three months into her new role, the COVID-19 crisis disrupted so much of what was previously guaranteed in American life.
“I think I probably learned more in that seven months as a communications practitioner than in the other 25 plus years of my career,” Smirnov says. “Between COVID, the economic downturn and Black Lives Matter—this ongoing global cry for social justice—it was an extraordinary time to be in corporate communications.”
Here are some of the lessons she takes from the last few months:
1. Employee engagement has never been better.
“If there was ever a dimension of corporate communications that has ever been more important and in need of rethinking and innovation, I would argue that it’s employee engagement/employee experience,” Smirnov says.
One of the silver linings of the pandemic has been the new level of attention organizations have received from internal stakeholders. However, organizations must show that they are listening to these audiences. Smirnov likens internal communications to a phrase that is common in parenting circles: “You’re only as happy as your saddest child.”
“I think as a company you’re only as happy, so to speak, or as healthy as your most unhappy employee,” she says. Companies must respond to what Smirnov says is an unprecedented amount of palpable pain in corporate America—and that means tossing out the traditional communications playbook.
Instead, she urges communicators to consider innovation: “How do we rethink employee communications employee experience in this new normal?”
2. Refine your ability to pivot.
This year it was the COVID-19 pandemic, but Smirnov says that disruption could have easily been something else. Change is the only guarantee.
“It’s just the way the world moves,” she says. “It’s the pace of the news cycle. It’s the pace of cultural change.”
Agencies and brand managers eager to see success in the future must be prepared to pivot at the drop of a hat. For agencies, that could mean being ready to pivot and adapt before the client asks.
However, Smirnov warns against speed for speed’s sake. “Chickens with their heads cut off are also fast, and that’s not necessarily what we want to be,” she says.
Instead, she defines agility as having all the necessary pieces on your team to be able to quickly adapt, including employees with expertise in essential disciplines such as data analysis and experiential design. For those working in an agency, that means breaking down barriers and building cross-team connections so that innovation can happen to meet shorter, tighter deadlines.
3. Find your way to empathy.
Everyone is facing a difficult time right now—so how can you offer grace to colleagues?
Smirnov advises PR pros entering new roles where they might be the point of contact with a brand manager or external communicator to think about what the person’s day is like. “You are one item on a very, very long laundry list of to do’s that any client has to get done,” she says.
In her view, “client empathy” is a skill that PR pros must cultivate now more than ever.
Smirnov stresses that this goes beyond knowing about the business needs of the client (“which is table stakes”) and into a deeper idea of building a relationship. By understanding all the various demands on a brand manager’s time, PR pros can be better equipped to deliver solutions in a time of crisis and change.
4. Question what you think you know.
Smirnov argues that trying to predict the future is almost an exercise in futility—particularly if you can’t assess the ways in which the world has changed.
“It’s almost like we’re all standing on quicksand and the ground continues to shift beneath our feet,” she says.
Smirnov says that communicators must be insatiable when it comes to the data that helps them understand the ways consumer habits have permanently changed.
5. Diversity and inclusion isn’t just an HR issue.
How is your content reflecting an increasingly diverse and enlightened world? To successfully tell those stories, PR agencies and brand managers must cultivate diverse workforces.
“Do we have enough people who have the lived experience and the understanding of culture and the understanding of race theory, so that the output of our work as communicators is actually appropriate to the reality that we’re in?” Smirnov asks.
For progress in the PR industry, she is looking beyond the hiring of a chief diversity officer, though she says that’s an admirable first step.
6. Earned media should be at the center—but owned media plays its part.
Certainly the model where paid, owned, shared and earned media work together is still valid, but Smirnov argues that communicators have forgotten the true value of journalism—as evidenced by the hollowing-out of newsrooms across the country.
The vacuum left by the loss of traditional media outlets is an opportunity for brands, however.
“I think what we’re going to keep on seeing is there’s going to continue to be an opportunity for brands to act as publishers,” Smirnov says. “The role of a brand who’s creating really excellent content, brand journalism … is going to have more of an opportunity than ever.”
Savvy pros must also know how to be strategic, Smirnov says. Beyond having media contacts, a great pro must know which outlet is the best fit for a certain kind of story—and make the case for a digital-native outlet that will perform better on social media.
Smirnov says that is a practice that must be nurtured and updated month by month.
7. Take the opportunity to work both in-house and for an agency.
Smirnov says that her time on both sides of the agency relationship has made her a much better PR pro. She says that when young pros ask her whether they should go in-house or take an agency role, she offers this advice:
“If I could paint the perfect career path for you, young colleague, I would say start on the agency side, because starting on the agency side I feel as like getting the equivalent of the MBA in communications. You’ll have an opportunity to work across a variety of sectors. You’ll get to try different kinds of communications, depending on where you go.”
She says “the agency experience will give you the discipline. It’ll teach you how to pace. It’ll teach you how to multitask.” However, the client side will make you a better client service pro. You will become immersed in other issues as a corporate comms pro, things like investor relations and internal communications and leadership comms.
For a communicator who loves to learn—and likes a challenge—what could be better than trying to do it all?